I was excited to see the article on elder mediation in Wall Street Journal, A Referee for Family Disputes by Anne Tergesen. This piece, like others before it (see earlier post) introduces readers to the subject. For those interested in moving beyond an introduction, read on.
Elder mediation can be used to address a wide range of concerns related to an aging parent as the need arises. Common concerns include: safety, physical and mental decline, medication management, driving, housing, care coordination, finances, property, estate planning, choice of health care and/or home care providers and more.
When families seek elder mediation depends. Families may opt for elder mediation proactively to resolve disagreements that arise in the course of trying to develop plans for an elder parent. Elder mediation may also come into play when family members near the point of taking legal action against each other. And, of course, family members embroiled in litigation may pursue mediation to settle a lawsuit. (Click here for a comparison of mediation and litigation).
Once a family decides to give it a try, here is how we approach elder mediations. Consider the following scenario. An elder person living on her own begins to think about whether a different living situation where her needs can be better met makes more sense. Her children have conflicting opinions about where she should live and no one really knows the full range of options available or how much they cost. No one, including the mother, can agree on next steps, leaving the family stymied.
Although all involved may have the best interest of the elder at heart, many known and unknown variables often confound the ability of families to communicate effectively. As mediators in this situation, we would speak with each child and the elder individually to formulate a list of concerns to be discussed in a joint family session. Topics that the family in the hypothetical may wish to discuss could include: the geographic location where the mother will reside, the plans for the family home, the level of care the mother needs now and how to plan for the future, financial resources to pay for her new residence and care, and responsibilities of each family member in the future.
Family sessions form the core of elder mediations. In these sessions, the mediators facilitate discussion of each issue, making sure that each participant has the opportunity to speak. Given the long history involved, elder mediators must also manage the emotions expressed in a way that is productive to the process. When mediation works, participants gain a clearer understanding of what is important to each person at the table and commonality of interests emerge. Once this occurs, the focus shifts to brainstorming ways to address the issue at hand. Before a proposed solution can become a final decision, the mediators check for buy-in from each participant. Only the family members, not the mediators, make decisions.
In the above situation, the mediation may result in the following decisions: (1) hiring a geriatric care manager to assess the mother’s needs and inform the family of appropriate living options based on the assessment; (2) obtaining an appraisal of the fair market value of the mother’s home; and (3) enlisting an elder law attorney or financial advisor to assist in determining how to maximize the mother’s financial resources to cover the cost of her living expenses.
Often the mediation continues over a period of time. Between sessions families may gather the information necessary to make informed decisions. At this stage of the mediation, the family dynamic has shifted. This shift allows the participants to focus on structuring a solution upon which they can all agree.